A Minor History of Televised War

I was born during the height of the Vietnam War in 1969. Today I remember nothing directly of it, although when the tanks from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam crashed through the gates of the Embassy of the United States of America in Saigon on Apr 30, 1975, I was probably watching at the tender age of 6. Because I watched a lot of TV before we moved out to an isolated rural village that only got 2 channels in 1981. War has been on TV throughout my entire life. Vietnam, Afghanistan (30 years of war), the Iraq Iran War, the two Gulf Wars, and now Ukraine have all been the major screen productions. But televised war has changed a lot since 1975.

The Vietnam War (Nov 1, 1955 — Apr 30, 1975) became the first televised war in history. At the start of the American escalation following the passing of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by Congress in 1964 , there were “fewer than two dozen journalists in Vietnam. By 1968, at the height of the war, there were about 600 accredited journalists of all nationalities in Vietnam" (Britannica). I discovered the work and life of Neil Davis while still a teenager. Davis was an inspired Australian-born photojournalist, working for Visnews for Southeast Asia from 1963 to 1973. He was then a freelancer from 1973 until his death in 1986. It was Davis that filmed the tanks crashing through the gates of the United States embassy in Saigon.

Visnews was a London-based international news agency. It began as the British Commonwealth International Newsfilm Agency (BCINA), which was setup with help from The Rank Organisation when that company closed its cinema newsreel operation. The original headquarters in School Road, Acton, had formerly been a Rank Laboratory. The founder shareholder broadcasters were the ABC (Australia), the BBC, CBC (Canada) CYBC (Cyprus) and NZBC (New Zealand). News was considered “a family affair” for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in the 1960s and 70s. Therefore the war in Vietnam was sanitised and censored in how it was presented on the news by the national broadcaster.

“Visnews offered an independent non-American orientated television news service. Prior to Visnews being established practically the only source of international television news came from the American networks and there was a heavy overlay of American interests” — Neil Davis

The television broadcasting of the Vietnam War was instead controlled at the national level by the governments of the countries that participated in it. This control was asserted through the news editors at the television stations.

But then on 5th August 1965 CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite showed Vietnamese homes being burned by U.S. military forces at Cam Ne. The effect was not exactly instant, but it was a turning point for televised war. President Nixon said; “if I have lost Cronkite I have lost the middle class….” in regards to support for the war. The censorship continued “until 1968, whereby network news operations tended to edit out the blood and gore and avoid direct criticism of military operations while American lives were on the line. There was no government censorship, but negative news reports infuriated President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he didn’t hesitate to let the networks know it.” (Washington Post).

CBS news correspondent Morley Safer was in Da Nang to report on Marine activities. On 3 August Safer joined the Marines headed for Cam Ne. Safer was accompanied by a South Vietnamese cameraman, Ha Tue Can. The operation at Cam Ne was filmed by Can and narrated by Safer. The film showed a Marine, armed with a rifle, lighting a hut with his cigarette lighter. No opposition was evident. According to Safer’s report the Marines were under orders to burn to the ground any hamlet from which they received even a single burst of sniper fire. Old men and women who were pleading for the Marines to spare their houses were ignored.

The camera film that was shot in Vietnam was transported to Japan where it was developed and sent to the USA either via transport or by satellite link. The result was war beamed directly into the homes of those people whose government was making it happen. Now, they were suddenly complicit as witnesses. Since then we have all been complicit as witnesses in the televised war. But the means of our witnessing has changed dramatically.

The fall of Saigon dealt a blow to the American appetite for war. However, the USA did continue to interfere in the politics of other countries, with direct support and planning for the military coup in Chile (1973), as well as the invasions of Grenada (1983) and of Panama (1989). These were not televised operations as they were largely clandestine and run from the White House, closely tied to espionage and covert operations (including the Iran Contra Affair). These were not wars that had to be sold to the people of the USA. Then on 16–17 January 1991, viewers around the world watched the beginning of a war for the first time ever on live television.

I was 22 years old when the Gulf War broke out. I marched in protest with thousands of others against the ‘Blood for Oil’ war. At the same time we would leave a pub or club at midnight and ‘go home to watch the war’ as the government broadcaster in Australia, the same one that had censored Neil Davis’s footage from the Vietnam War, was now sending live CNN broadcasting from the deserts of Kuwait all night long.

The eerie green of night-vision footage and the carnage of the Basra Road became part of my consciousness when I was a young man. We felt like witnesses but we knew it was a biased version we were being given. But then this happened:

War was fast becoming a video game for my generation. Cameras fitted into fighter planes, missiles and drones gave us a visual perspective on death that was equal to that of the machines used in the conflict. The war on the screen was supplied by the military. But the dismembered limbs, charred corpses and blood were real.

There was also protest using the footage that was being fed to us. The Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN)

During both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan journalists were given only very limited access to the battle front. It was selective based on the process of being ‘embedded. The Iraq War broke out in 2003. This war was truly ‘live’, with news networks ‘embedded’ with combat units and travelling with them as they fought. At the start of the war in March 2003, as many as 775 reporters and photographers were traveling as embedded journalists. These reporters signed contracts with the military promising not to report information that could compromise unit position, future missions, classified weapons, and information they might find. But what they did report on was also often suppressed by indirect and logistical means:

A danger of “embedding” is that it puts journalists in the wrong place at the wrong time. In November 2004, the US Marines stormed the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, which had been seized by insurgents, The troops were accompanied by almost all the Baghdad foreign press corps, at great risk to themselves. Their accounts and pictures of the battle were compelling and the outcome was an undoubted victory for the US.

But reports of American success were misleading because the insurgents had used the concentration of US forces around Fallujah to launch their own assault against the much larger city of Mosul in northern Iraq, which they briefly captured. The Iraqi army and police fled, 30 police stations were occupied, and $40m-worth of arms seized by the insurgents. Given that Mosul is Iraq’s third-largest city, it was a stunning reversal for the US-led forces, but it was virtually unreported since there were no American troops there and hence no embedded journalists. — The Independent

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the results of illegal invasions by NATO allies, have dragged on for more than 20 years. Once both conflict descended into quagmires, the news value for western broadcasters diminished. That was until Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021.

It seemed like the fall of Saigon all over again. Broadcasting the end of the war in Afghanistan was clearly back in the hands of the major networks, as the disaster was explained as an emergency but not a crisis. However, from the Taliban side the winning of Kabul and the nation of Afghanistan was the result of a campaign that had always been mediated and broadcast.

Social media and smartphones do not win a conflict. Instead, they are enablers. Nonetheless, according to observers on the ground, Taliban fighters “armed” smartphones to share footage of military advances and victories, which indicates they have a media and communication engagement strategy. On Twitter, there were images of Taliban fighters in the presidential palace in Kabul. The symbolism was clear: Kabul has fallen. — CIGI

The Ukraine War of 2022 is the first Livestreamed War. TikTok, Twitch, Twitter, Telegram, Facebook and YouTube are now the broadcasters of war. Of course this makes accuracy and truth value uncertain regarding what is broadcast. The use of deep fake (the creation of artificial content using computer programming) and manipulated content are common problems when there are endless points that are broadcasting a war, from within and outside it, but are not providing explanation or context. Just streamed vision.

However the omniscience of information from a war zone brings the reality closer too. Serhiy Perebyinis’ wife Tetiana Perebyinis, 43, son Mykyta, 18, and daughter Alisa, 9, were all killed in a Russian mortar strike as they tried to flee across a bridge in their hometown of Irpin on 6 March 2022. Anatoly Berezhnyi, a 26-year-old church volunteer who was helping the family evacuate, also died in the attack. Serhiy Perebyinis learned of the deaths of his wife and children from an image of their corpses published on Twitter. In this interview with CNN he explains he knew something was wrong from the GPS positioning of his wife’s phone, which he tracked. It had moved to a hospital and he therefore assumed she was in trouble.

On the same day that Tetiana Perebyini and her children died TikTok announced that it would suspend livestreaming and the posting of new content in Russia as it assesses the implications of Putin’s so-called “fake news” law. But what is ‘fake news’?

In 2014, a researcher at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism who tracked factual errors by media outlets was noticing a new trend: websites that looked like news outlets but published entirely made-up stories that would often go viral on Facebook and other social media platforms. The researcher, Craig Silverman, referred to them as “fake news” sites. Prior to that, the term “fake news” had appeared in fewer than 1,000 stories per year in major U.S. news outlets, most often in reference to satire sites such as the Onion that aim to amuse, not deceive, according to a query of the news database Factiva. — Washington Post

Fake news today however is more about perspective than truth value. The Putin Kremlin take on ‘fake news’ means individuals can be fined up to 400,000 rubles ($6,100) for circulating false information online that leads to a “mass violation of public order”. People who show “blatant disrespect” online for the state, the authorities, the public, the Russian flag or the constitution can be fined up to 100,000 rubles under the new legislation. Repeat offenders can be jailed for up to 15 days. It is now illegal in Russia to call the invasion of Ukraine an invasion.

The attempt to control war reporting by the state is not new. Whether the reporting is done by news networks or by individuals in basements with cell phones. Control by powerful and vested interests goes at least back to the days of Neil Davis sending footage out of Vietnam. Even the use of ‘fake’ reporting occurred in Vietnam. It will continue in the future no matter the platform.

“Give me some flames…how about some screaming….screaming is good”

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Freelance scholar. Humanist. Interested in language, culture, music, technology, design & philosophy. I like Literature & Critical Theory. Traveler. I am mine.

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James Barrett

James Barrett

Freelance scholar. Humanist. Interested in language, culture, music, technology, design & philosophy. I like Literature & Critical Theory. Traveler. I am mine.

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